Once Broken, Drug Court Graduates Now Grateful For Their Rebuilt Lives

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - by Mitch Talley
Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks and other well-wishers applaud Audrey Edds after she received her certificate during the 71st Conasauga Drug Court graduation on Oct. 25. “When the judge offered me Drug Court as one of my sentences,” Edds said, “everyone told me not to do it. They said I was crazy and I could not do it, but if there is one thing I could tell every one of you is that I have learned that the only limits in life are the ones you set for yourself. We were never made to be average.”
Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks and other well-wishers applaud Audrey Edds after she received her certificate during the 71st Conasauga Drug Court graduation on Oct. 25. “When the judge offered me Drug Court as one of my sentences,” Edds said, “everyone told me not to do it. They said I was crazy and I could not do it, but if there is one thing I could tell every one of you is that I have learned that the only limits in life are the ones you set for yourself. We were never made to be average.”
- photo by Mitch Talley

Max Millican admits he came into the Conasauga Circuit Drug Court program a broken man.

“Physically, mentally, and spiritually, I was close to death,” Millican said. “I was completely isolated from any worthwhile thing for more than a decade. I was without hope, I prayed for forgiveness, and I prayed for the end of my life to come sooner.”

Now the former Northwest Whitfield High School football star believes God has plenty more good things for him to accomplish in his remaining time on Earth.

“Today I love again,” he said. “I want to try to live inside God’s purpose for me every day. Drug Court has given me the tools and discipline to use the pain of my past to bless others as God has blessed me. The Drug Court men, women, and my home group family mean everything to me. I can never thank all of you enough!”

Wearing a bright blue jacket that matched his new and enthusiastic outlook on life, Millican joined four women - Audrey Edds, Lauren Wasserman, Amber Biggs, and Cynthia Phillips – to earn diplomas during the 71st graduation of the Conasauga Drug Court on Oct. 25 at the Whitfield County Courthouse.

But reaching that satisfying moment wasn’t an easy journey for any of them … or their families.

“This program has not been a walk in the park for me. By any means,” Edds, for example, admitted in a letter to Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks that she read, like her fellow graduates, in a jury assembly room overflowing with supporters of the graduates. 

“I remember coming into Drug Court at 19 years old,” Edds said, “and I was only a shell of a girl. I was very rebellious and stubborn. I felt like I could outsmart the program, but I had mixed feelings because deep inside me, the little girl in me was afraid of getting hurt.”

Likewise, Wasserman had to overcome three generations of addiction in her family. Biggs took five years to complete what is designed to be a 24-month program. And Phillips admits she lied to herself and others before finally taking the program seriously.

“We focus on the high need, high risk folks,” Judge Wilbanks says. “These are the folks that have failed before, and they are at the bottom. If they’re not in the bottom of the biggest, deepest hole they’ve ever been in in their life, they probably don’t want this program.”

But thanks to the support of the Drug Court treatment staff, along with a liberal dose, in many cases, of the healing power of Jesus, these five people have joined the dozens of others since 2002 who have climbed out of that hole and become productive members of society again.

Drug Court “is the best thing I do,” Judge Wilbanks has said repeatedly since taking over Drug Court from Judge Jack Partain, who began organizing the program in 2001. “That’s the only way I know how to say it – it’s the best thing I do. I think if you’re a guest with us today for the first time, it won’t take you long to figure out why it is.”

The graduates would agree.

“I want to thank every member of this team for believing in me when I could not believe in myself,” Biggs said. “I want to thank you all for showing me love, acceptance, and giving me hope when the pain was too overwhelming for me to handle and seeing something in me that I was unable to see in myself.”

Each of the graduates listed major accomplishments they’ve made during their time in the program – things like regaining custody of their children, accepting Christ, being consistently employed, getting a house or apartment, buying a car, and opening checking and savings accounts.

Mending once-broken relationships with family members is also a common thread.

Says Phillips, for example, “I get to see my daughter, my stepdaughter, and my six grandchildren. My relationship with my mother and sister is one of honesty and truth now.”

Wasserman agreed. “This program has not only changed my life but it has changed my son’s as well. He will always have a mother,” she said.

Structure is the name of the game for Drug Court participants.

“We’re all in their business,” Judge Wilbanks said. “We control where they live, where they work, where they are in their off time, who they’re with in their off time, how many meetings a week they attend, who they attend those meetings with, who they cannot have associations with, who they have no contact with, the places they have to stay away from, and then everything in between is what I mean when I talk about all in your business.”

That structure and personal accountability are “what makes this program work,” the judge said.

“If you give us honesty and transparency and surrender,” Wilbanks said, “the sky’s the limit.”

He knows some participants have been told not to enter the program because it’s too hard. “I hear that over and over and over, and so what you’ve got is people coming into the program overcome other people telling them don’t come in this program,” the judge said. “That tells you something about how hard the program is, but it also tells you something about  the determination of Audrey and these other graduates to do what they knew they needed to do to change their life.”

In the end, however, the hard work was worth it to the graduates, who expressed their thanks to the staff of the Drug Court program for being hard on them but knowing that it was done out of love and caring.

“There was a ton of work left to do,” Millican said in his letter to Judge Wilbanks, “and I could not have even begun to do it without every member of your staff and your direction. As difficult as it was, it was obvious that every member of this Drug Court team was dedicated to my recovery.

Their dedication and yours are the only reason I’m standing here today. With their help, I have found a deep-seated peace and joy.”

Illustrating the point that the graduates are  not defined by their past, their family, or their criminal history, after receiving their diplomas, each of the graduates tore up their old booking photos to the cheers of their family and friends.

“I want you to see where they came from,” Wilbanks said to the audience, “and I know it can be difficult to look at – it should be difficult to look at. So that’s why we put the photos up there – not to embarrass anybody but let’s tell the story and let’s be completely, brutally honest with this story, and that’s what we do. They’re gonna rip up that picture – that is not who’s here today – and they’re gonna put it in the trash.”

After all, they’re no longer broken people.
 
BY THE NUMBERS
 
Graduate: Audrey Edds
Date of entry into program: Aug. 20, 2015
Sobriety date: Aug. 17, 2015
Days clean at graduation: 1,165
 
Graduate: Amber Biggs
Date of entry: Dec. 5, 2013
Sobriety date: Feb. 23, 2017
Days clean at graduation: 609
 
Graduate: Lauren Wasserman
Date of entry: Sept. 24, 2015
Sobriety date: Sept. 21, 2015
Days clean at graduation: 1,130
 
Graduate: Cindy Phillips
Date of entry: April 9, 2015
Sobriety date: Feb. 23, 2015
Days clean at graduation: 1,340
 
Graduate: Max Millican
Date of entry: March 3, 2016
Sobriety date: March 3, 2016
Days clean at graduation: 968
 
PROGRAM FEATURES
 
? Alcohol and other outpatient treatment 
? Individual counseling with licensed professional counselors
? Intensive case management with a master’s level social worker
? Individual classes on Boundaries, Dual Diagnosis, Anger Management, Parenting, Inner Child
? Daily, random, targeted, and observed drug testing
? Community supervision by probation and local law enforcement officers and 24-hour crisis response
? Recurring court appearances before Judge Wilbanks
? Incentives and sanctions related to progress and non-compliance
? Verifiable participation in 12-Step meetings and Celebrate Recovery
? Assistance for participants to obtain GEDs and other educational/career goals
? Support clients who have DFCS involvement to adhere to case plans providing documentation
? Participants pay weekly fees for services ($27/week) and pay regular restitution payments.
? Opportunity to make choices that improve self-care, self-confidence, promote family unity, reveal rewarding career choices, enhance communication, coping and social skills.
? Return to a crime-free, drug-free lifestyle
 
WAYS YOU CAN HELP
 
Volunteer. Contact Conasauga Drug Court Coordinator Todd Breitmann at 706-281-4818 or tbreitmann@whitfieldcountyga.com.

Spread the word. Court sessions are open to the public on Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. Referrals may be made by calling 706-281-4811. Speakers are available to community and school organizations.

Donate. Financial contributions may be made to the NWGA Community Foundation / Conasauga Drug Court, a  501 (c3) organization. Other donations: Call 706-281-4811.

Drug Court graduate Max Millican rips up his booking photo to the cheers of his brothers, Mark (left) and Brian. “If I had a message to my Drug Court brothers and sisters, it would be hang on, trust the staff, trust the program, and grow one day at a time,” he said. “After all, you only have to change everything!”
Drug Court graduate Max Millican rips up his booking photo to the cheers of his brothers, Mark (left) and Brian. “If I had a message to my Drug Court brothers and sisters, it would be hang on, trust the staff, trust the program, and grow one day at a time,” he said. “After all, you only have to change everything!”
- photo by Mitch Talley

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